Originally created 05/30/99

Life's a drag for some



JACKSON, S.C. -- The tree's lights are bare as Jimmy Fountain preps himself for another six seconds of thunder this Saturday afternoon.

Fountain, who owns Jim Bob's convenience store on Georgia Highway 19 in Glenwood, Ga., burned out the tires on his 1927 Ford dragster, creating a heavy wall of smoke that covers the Carolina Dragway control tower.

The noise from Fountain's engine reverberates through the drag strip and lets the 4,000 fans crowding the bleachers know he's ready.

Drag racing, the basic and most simple form of all racing, is all about power. It's about building a car, modifying an engine, spending hours upon hours testing and tuning for the time when the light turns green.

That's when reaction time outduels horsepower. Because if you can't beat your competition off the block, you'll never get from point A to point B the fastest.

"We work on our cars day after day, week after week, but if you get stuck at the start, all that work goes to heck," said Fountain, a 54-year-old man with a scraped up forearm and fingernails covered in engine soot.

"When it's green and you're not gone, you're done."

Fountain's time trial is his third Saturday. Finally, the yellow arrives, beginning the countdown in five-tenths increments. A second yellow comes, and Fountain's dragster starts jumping like a thoroughbred itching to get out of its gate.

Green flashes, and Fountain's machine with an exposed engine and an abundance of promotional stickers becomes a purple blur streaking by the grandstands.

Fountain covers the eighth of a mile in 6.39 seconds, roughly 115 miles per hour, or enough time for a 54-year-old man in a black fire suit to turn gray and those in attendance to be wowed again.

"When that light turns green, your head better be in the right position or else you're going to get jerked back," Fountain said. "I learned that the hard way my first couple of times. Once I got jerked back and my helmet moved and covered my eyes."

Imagine traveling at unthinkable speeds, accelerating as fast as 5,800 rpm, and not being able to see.

"When the green light comes, you just hold on because you're in for the ride of your life," he said.

There is a daredevil aspect to this sport, and it takes an incredible constitution to sit in tight quarters and try and control the G-forces and power at your fingertips.

It's that sense of awesome control that attracts many a driver, young and old, man and woman to conquer the strip. There's a you-vs.-me attitude, your car against mine, who crosses the line first.

The one-on-one races filled Saturday's plate, as drivers tugging along souped-up Pontiacs, Camaros, Impalas, Corvettes, Mercurys and Fords lined up for the weekend's Sports Nationals. There was even a guy with his 1988 Dodge, still lugging his Georgia license plate, looking like he had lost his way to work.

Fountain's roots in drag racing date back to 1955, when his father took his 14-year-old to the track in Vidalia for Saturday night races.

"The first time I saw those wheels spinning and smelled the asphalt burning, I knew this was for me," Fountain said.

"I was in college when my dad helped me build my first car. He said he'd pay half if I'd pay half."

So he rebuilt many of the Chevrolets that he collects, prepping them for the fastest eighth of a mile you'll ever see. Fountain bought the '27 Ford he sports, which runs purely on alcohol, from a friend suffering from back injuries.

"This is a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist," Mary Anne Fountain, Jim's wife, said. "When he's had a bad day at the store, or he needs to get some tension out, he comes to his cars."

All for that instant thrill.

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.